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The Big Idea: Moving from a Big City to Smalltown, USA

Updated on May 1, 2009

The Phoenix Zoo sits like a thumbtack in the corner where Phoenix and two other cities come together and flow out again across the arid desert landscape, each in turn meeting seamlessly with other communities covering hundreds of square miles.

When I was a child, there was still uninhabited space between most of the cities, so that it was an adventure to visit family. There were two freeways: one traveling north and south, the other east and west.

Now, the ongoing ADoT expansion project has crisscrossed and looped the valley with gigantic multilane expressways complete with restricted-use carpool lanes and confusing multiple-choice exits. Traffic is heavier at 3 am than in Salina, KS at its busiest.

Always on the lookout for new items of interest for my husband, I brought the newspaper home one day and left it on the kitchen table with the front page open. I figured it would be casually noticed and then float around the apartment for a while until one of us used it to line the bottom of the birdcage. This time was a little different.

Dan saw the headline and read out loud, “Free land in Kansas? How soon do we leave?”

“As soon as you’re ready,” I said, happy that the paper had caught more than just his passing attention.

Dan immediately got on the internet and began gathering details about the ‘repopulate Kansas’ campaign. His enthusiasm was out of character, but motivated by circumstance; Phoenix was his idea of purgatory. He had soon requested information regarding several locations: Atwood, Ellsworth, and Lincoln.

It was February, and we were both dreading the impending Phoenix heat, which can hover around 120۫ for months at a time. "Ah, but it’s a dry heat", they say. Well, when it’s that hot, what’s the difference, especially when you work construction?

From May through September in Phoenix, the electrician’s day begins at around 4:00 am. He will drive forty or more miles, one way, to be at the construction jobsite sometime before dawn. On these days, he feels lucky to have missed the worst of the rush hour traffic, which regularly slows to a bumper-to-bumper crawl from dawn until mid-morning. He is off work around 2 pm, when the heat reaches its most intense. This usually gets him home before the worst of evening rush hour is underway.

After about a week of research we decided that the news story was ‘for real’, and anxiously awaited the arrival of information packets in the mail. We spent the intervening time studying Kansas on the map and imagining what life would be like there. I fantasized some rustic race for prime acreage, where we’d plant stakes and build a home. A Hundred and Sixty Acres in the Valley played in my mind more than once.

At the time we lived in one of a cluster of ‘luxury’ apartment complexes – the kind that are beautiful and comfortable and surprisingly affordable because they are in an area that is considered the “bad” part of town. We were sandwiched between the Papago Park Nature Preserve and Golf Course, which includes the Phoenix Zoo, and SkyHarborInternationalAirport. The complex was embraced by the curves of route 202. The roar of constant commuters, punctuated by frequent helicopter manhunts, malfunctioning car alarms, and the occasional low-flying passenger jet, accompanied our sleep each night.

This location far exceeded our previous residence where maintenance issues had resulted in three burned out buildings in the space of a year. In fact, late one night in the middle of July, we had returned home to find our own apartment filled with smoke. It took begging and cajoling to get Maintenance to come out that night and check the AC unit on the roof, and another week in 110+۫ weather to get the unit replaced. Meanwhile, our apartment would cool to a nippy 100۫ by midnight.

Our friends couldn’t conceive of the idea of moving to the middle of what they considered nowhere. They took our excitement as proof of our insanity. It all seemed right in character. “It’s Dan and Jane,” they’d say while rolling their eyes, then add “You know there’s nothing in Kansas…right?”

Dan and I would just grin. “Exactly!”

Our parents were tentatively supportive, although apprehensive. It had become increasingly clear that we were never going to live ‘next door’ again, especially with four parents spread across three states. But then, we’d been talking about a move of this sort ever since our wedding in December of 1995. It was a favorite daydream of ours to eventually settle on a small ranch away from the city. Of course, neither of us had any real idea of what that would entail, and we knew it. But on every trip we’d look out the car windows at the passing scenery, and point out lovely little homesteads. Our hearts always beat a little faster when there was a FOR SALE sign attached.

My coworker was the saddest. She was a young Hispanic wife and mother who had never worked outside the home before. The two of us manned a tiny convenience store inside a corporate office building for a year, teaching each other Spanish and English, and becoming close friends. She refused to believe I wasn’t joking about the move.

My sister was the loudest. It is her strong suit. We must’ve had the same discussion fifty times. It went something like this:


“Bethany, they have tornadoes in Utah, now.”

“Yes, but they have them all the time in Kansas!”

“I’m not really worried about tornadoes, Bethany.”

“Well…ugh…er…You should be!”

Next: Discovering Home


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